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Rev. Robert Sirico: Tea Party Must Define Ideas

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A new Detroit News column by Acton Institute President and co-founder Rev. Robert A. Sirico:

Tea party must define ideas

By Father Robert Sirico

If the recent analysis by the New York Times on the success of the tea party movement is correct, the influence of this movement favoring limited government and low levels of taxation may have a decided impact in the upcoming elections, particularly in holding the Republican leadership’s feet to the fire on a variety of related issues.

The influence and more especially the authenticity of the tea party movement also is being debated in religious circles where some writers have expressed a skepticism as to how the evident religious sentiments expressed by many (but not all) tea party activists can be compatible with the undeniable Christian obligation to tend to the needs of “the least of these my brethren.”

Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, said in critique of the tea party approach, “Much as we might like otherwise, the Catholic argument is that government and citizen are equally expected to be our brother’s keeper.”

One of the leaders of the evangelical left, Jim Wallis, renders what I think is a wholly inaccurate image of tea party folks when he says, “When government regulation is the enemy, the market is set free to pursue its own self-interest without regard for public safety, the common good, and the protection of the environment — which Christians regard as God’s creation. Libertarians seem to believe in the myth of the sinless market and that the self-interest of business owners or corporations will serve the interests of society; and if they don’t, it’s not government’s role to correct it.”

From my conversations with numerous supporters of the tea party movement from around the country, these comments fail to grasp the essential point of what this movement is about, and why religious people are attracted to it.

I have no doubt there are people on the fringes of the tea party movement who hate government. Most of these, however, I would suggest hate government the way most of us “hate” the dentist — that is, we are not in favor of abolishing dentistry; we just want to make sure it hurts as little as possible and does not do permanent damage.

It is not that tea party folk believe in “the myth of the sinless market.”

It is that they, and most believers, indeed most Americans, believe that politicians and bureaucrats are not immaculately conceived and require limits to their interventions.

And so we come to what may be the real deficiency of this popular movement — it has yet to define a set of clear principles that permit it to consistently outline its view of society and the proper role of the state.

Such a set of principles exists within both the Roman Catholic and Reformed Protestant traditions and are known respectively as subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty. Each term in different yet complementary ways states that needs are best met at the most local level of their existence and that higher orders of social organization (that is, mediating institutions and the public sector) may only temporarily intervene into lower spheres of social organization in moments of great crisis. This intervention by higher authorities should happen to assist, not replace, local relationships.

In his monumental encyclical “The Hundredth Year” Pope John Paul II outlined the principle of subsidiarity and demonstrated an understanding of the reaction that can occur in the social sphere when the limits of the state are not clearly maintained. Although written almost a decade ago, his cautions and observations could have been penned today:

By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbors to those in need. It should be added that certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not simply material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need. One thinks of the condition of refugees, immigrants, the elderly, the sick, and all those in circumstances which call for assistance, such as drug abusers: all these people can be helped effectively only by those who offer them genuine fraternal support, in addition to the necessary care.

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.


  • Stephen Schneck

    Hello, Fr. Sirico! Thank you for enlarging on your remarks in Our Sunday Visitor.

    I endorse your request for a more theoretical clarification of the basic ideas of the Tea Party. I’d ask though that such an effort not only clarify where the movement stands vis-a-vis President Obama, but equally importantly where it stands vis-a-vis traditional conservatism. Does it endorse, for example, old-fashioned conservatism’s emphasis on hierarchical authority, communitarian solidarity, incremental change, deference to tradition, elite leadership, the common good, and the priority of responsibility before liberty?

    While I would never equate the moral and social teachings of the Church with traditional conservatism, there is at least in regard to the aspects I mention here some harmony–especially as regarding the Church’s fundamental emphases on solidarity and common good. I ask, of course, because some of the libertarian and populist elements of the Tea Party’s rhetoric appear to be in opposition.

  • Roger McKinney

    Good article! Thanks! I have a few thoughts on the Tea Party movement:

    They are not an organized party, so expecting a refined platform, such as that of the political parties, is unrealistic. They are a populist movement. They claim to want less gov and taxes, but they only became energized once Obama was elected. Where were they when Bush was destroying our freedoms and swelling the power of the state?

    However, the Tea Party is the Republican party’s best hope for the near future. But Republicans have chosen to snub them, which means that Democrats will win and Republicans have reinforced the stereotype of the party as a country club.

    Subsidiarity is fine as far as it goes, but the left has never had a problem with subsidiarity. FDR even used the term on occasions. But subsidiarity does not limit the growth of government because all the left has to say is the lower levels of society aren’t doing their jobs so the higher levels must take over.

    The true limit to state power is found in the writings of the Late Scholastics who taught that the state has well-defined functions – protect life, liberty and property. The state can raise taxes to pay for performing those functions, but if it raises more taxes in order to perform other functions it is guilty of theft.

  • Roger McKinney

    I disagree that Libertarianism contradicts either Catholic Social teaching or traditional Protestant values. Libertarianism takes no position on these. It merely says that the state shouldn’t decide and enforce them. Those decisions and their enforcement should belong to families and churches, not the state. For example, no libertarian endorses adultery but they don’t want the state stoning adulterers.

  • I would not pretend to speak for the Tea Party Movement as a whole (not least because it brings together people with often different outlooks), and I think anyone who seeks to is asking for trouble largely because it is, one might say, “a movement in motion”, so to speak, not just politically, but more importantly, philosophically. What direction it will ultimately take, I cannot say, but I can outline how I hope things will go.

    There appears a great deal of discontent expressed in and through the Tea Party Movement over the lack of control over one’s life and resources. I consider this fully legitimate. The attitude is that the State is exceeding its proper boundaries and should back off, and this too, I endorse.

    The problem arises as to the next step. For some of the populist libertarians, that is sufficient: if the government does nothing, everything will spontaneously work itself out. That may eventually work in those realms where such developments are appropriate; I do believe in the unintended order generated by economic liberty. But I also know that there was a whole cultural infrastructure in place that enabled such an unintended order to emerge in the Christian West, and that cultural infrastructure has great damaged by the erosive effects of the State exceeding its proper bounds, a process which really began in the 16th century.

    I think much of the rebellion and what I would consider imprecision of thought on the part of some Tea Party activists, fiscal conservatives, and libertarians arises from the fact that many of the institutions you describe have been co-opted by the movements of the Left, replacing the natural order of a vibrant moral culture and the Church, and subsumed by an expansionist State. Even the terms ‘common good’ and ‘social justice’ appear, in the minds of those I identify above as forms of collectivism and socialism, which, of course, was never implied by the Church’s moral and social teaching.

    So, I would conclude that while the Tea Party Movement is in opposition to the Left, I do not think, from my conversations with a wide cross-section of people sympathetic to their sentiments, they do not oppose values and institutions you cite in your first paragraph, provided these are understood as emerging from the natural social structures of society rather than the decrees of an expansionist State and that these centers of constraint (what Nisbet distinguishes as authority vs. power) are seen as belonging to the normative dimension of society rather than the realm of politics.

  • Roger McKinney

    Good points, Father Sirico. We witnessed that with the fall of the USSR. Civil society institutions didn’t exist to take over from the state.

  • Stephen Schneck

    37. Rights must be religiously respected wherever they exist, and it is the duty of the public authority to prevent and to punish injury, and to protect every one in the possession of his own. Still, when there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the poor and badly off have a claim to especial consideration. The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State. And it is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government.

    Pope Leo XIII from Rerum Novarum

    As you know, these sentiments are repeated in all the major social encyclicals after Rerum, including Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate. I’m not arguing against subsidiarity, but we can’t just pick subsidiarity “cafeteria style” and avoid the other social teachings.

    Best wishes though. We should look for a forum to explore this more fully.

  • Subsidiarity tells us the priority of action on behalf of the vulnerable,namely the private sector. The public sector is not the normative means of meeting the needs of the poor, according to the the social encyclicals – merely a needed subsidium (help), which should be removed once the normative means is back in place. What is needed is an economic system that creates the possibility that intervention by the State is move to the margins, and not considered the main player. As you no doubt know, this what is called for in Centesimus Annus, no. 47:

    “…in exceptional circumstances the State can also exercise a substitute function, when social sectors or business systems are too weak or are just getting under way, and are not equal to the task at hand. Such supplementary interventions, which are justified by urgent reasons touching the common good, must be as brief as possible, so as to avoid removing permanently from society and business systems the functions which are properly theirs, and so as to avoid enlarging excessively the sphere of State intervention to the detriment of both economic and civil freedom.”

  • Stephen Schneck

    I very much like Benedict XVI’s gloss on this point in Caritas in Veritate, where he points out that subsidiarity alone is as dangerous as solidarity alone.

    58. The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need.

    Caritas in Veritate also draws a parallel between this understanding, that solidarity needs to balance subsidiarity, with an argument about the current economic crisis, noting that governments are morally obliged to balance the possible dangers of insufficiently regulated markets.

    Several encyclicals, as we know, discuss the special responsibilities of government vis-a-vis the common good, the poor, and so forth. Let me reiterate; I’m not trying to diminish the importance of non-governmental elements of civil society nor of the importance of determining what level of government is best suited for addressing given public policy concerns. But, as JPII points out in your excerpt from Centesimus, the State is morally obliged to act when needs of the common good are not being met by other means.

    Best wishes!

  • From the last sentence above, you seem to be arguing against someone who does not believe the government has certain (albeit) limited functions. I don’t see that person on this page. Likewise, the same balance between solidarity and subsidiarity called for in no. 58 of CV ought to enable us to see the that not only may markets be “insufficiently regulated” – I think especially of black markets unregulated by law or economic activities forced into the informal realm by regulators – but also the negative impact of overly or ill-regulated markets, which is what I think is largely the case in the present economic crisis. Again, it is a matter of the priority of private human economic and social action over that of politics.

  • Stephen Schneck

    It’s encouraging when these blog discussions really work and make some headway for all involved. I do look forward to some future conversation about these matters.

    My OSV remark that you cited in your Detroit News op-ed was that “the Catholic argument is that government and citizen are equally expected to be our brother’s keeper.” We seem to agree that this is the Church’s position, noting the balancing of subsidiarity and solidarity as well as the more specific encyclical references to the responsibilities on government. I had worried initially that you were challenging this remark.

    Your argument that the Tea Party needs to define it’s thinking about the role of government and its special responsibilities is one I endorse. All kinds of things are being said and the rhetoric is sometimes extreme. My analysis in the OSV interview, though, was that tensions exist between the anti-government elements of the Tea Party and Catholic teachings about the responsibilities of government. I’d add further here that tensions exist between the extremely individualistic understanding of the human person that seems very central to the Tea Party’s worldview and the Church’s teaching about solidarity and the common good–wherein parallels are sometimes drawn between the corporate character of Christians as a mystical body and the solidarity we share our fellow citizens in the political order.

    We can both agree that over the last decades the U. S. government has in some areas overstepped to engage in policies that would more appropriately be handled either by state governments or the private resources of civil society. But, do we both agree also that governments are obliged to step in when fundamental needs of the common good are being unmet by civil society?

    Again, many thanks for this discussion! It’s been heartening.

  • We can agree “that governments are obliged to step in when fundamental needs of the common good are being unmet by civil society”. Where I suspect we might part ways is in the prudential determination of when that obligation is best met indirectly and when directly. Also, I think the phrase that “the Catholic argument is that government and citizen are equally expected to be our brother’s keeper” is somewhat imprecise, which is what I was attempting to nuance my saying that while both have responsibilities, the resource of first resort is those closest to the situation, thus the ‘prejudice’, if you will, of private solutions over public ones.

    Instead of nit-picking the Tea Party apart, which doesn’t even consider itself Catholic, an interesting question, provocative as it is, might be to inquire how complete our own Catholic Bishops’ Conference “Themes of Catholic Social Teaching” ( can be considered when subsidiarity doesn’t even show up on the list.

    No doubt, the topic of another discussion for another day.